May 17, 1971 | Vintage Insatiable
Out of the Velveeta Cocoon
I eat for love more than money. Yes, I am an amateur. So was the Marquis de Sade. And just think how his little experiments expanded the boundaries of sensuality.
Often I am asked how I became a food writer…sometimes with envy and unjust insinuation. “Whom did you bribe?” “Or sleep with?” “At what great palate did you study?” What can I answer? Lester Maddox was better trained to be governor of Georgia that I to be a critic. What I am and do reflects lust, greed and curiosity.
I was born in Detroit with a silver spoon in my mouth. On that silver spoon was a dribble of mashed banana. Frankly, the family fare rarely exceeded that gastronomic high. Fate had left me on the frozen steppes of a vast culinary wasteland. Saralee – the Original Saralee, my mother knows. So it will not break her spirit to read it here. As a wife she was extraordinary. But except for the brilliance of her pea soup, Saralee is a spectacularly uninspiring cook. Early enough I was, it is true, exposed to primitive greatness: my grandmother tried to teach me potato pancakes but I ever quite got the knack. The clan’s one artist of the kitchen, Eve, was famous for her sour-milk chocolate cake and taught me the secret of her wondrously savory baked ham. True child of Saralee, I never thought it worth the effort. There was one lone cookbook in our kitchen, Fannie Farmer, violated and abused, rudely stained by Jell-O, her spine long broken.
Not until I ran away from home at seventeen did I break out of this Velveeta cocoon. Actually I was running from a broken heart mid-sophomore year at the University of Michigan and my parents paid my way to Paris. They financed all my major rebellions. Though gastronomic adventure was about seventy-eighth in priority on my list of crucial sensory awakenings, my innocent palate could not but be impressed with the vast new world of cheese, unheard of innards and unexplored delicatessen.
In Rome, a hip and regal superwoman, the Principessa Katya (even then I was unduly delighted with royal titles) taught me witchcraft and risotto. One day green walnuts appeared at market. Then off Katya went on a highly uncharacteristic flight of domesticity. Green walnuts were childhood talismans for her…as chunky peanut butter is for me. Peeling the pesky nuts was tedious and I watched in horror as the creamy silk hands of calculated indolence became stained purple and brown. Katya scarcely noticed. She was happily sautéing rice and browning bits of lamb. La Principessa, then in the throes of annulling a White Russian husband, suffered from intimations of poverty and I remember her triumphant chorus: “Watch me. Learn. All it takes is a bit of rice and 10 cents’ worth of lamb…you need never go hungry.”
When the prodigal dropped back in, I stormed the campus with my lamb risotto trick. It was not the money. I earned a modest fortune as Ann Arbor stringer for the Detroit Free Press. I could have fed the crowd lamb chops. It was the principle: to feed a dozen refugees from the Phi Gam house and Stockwell Hall on 50 cents’ worth of risotto and lamb bones (that’s the only part of the lamb you could buy in America for 10 cents a pound). No doubt the crew choked and muttered over my gristly tidbits, but there were few complaints.
My gastronomic dilettantism finally found a solid theme with four recipes from the Ladies’ Home Journal and a married man. I have always had a weakness for married men, even my own, but in my adolescence I was especially vulnerable to those elsewhere affiliated. This particular event errant scoundrel had swept me off to a weekend in the autumn wilds of Drummond Island in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. There we were in a sturdy little cabin on a wind-whipped lake – just the two of us and those four neatly clipped recipes: pork chops baked in buttermilk, hamburger in a biscuit wrap, cherry crisp and a bizarre concoction of baked ham, cheddar cheese, green pepper and tomato sauce. Time has mercifully misted the taste memories, but I do know that everything I did that weekend was brilliant and extravagantly appreciated. That’s one invariable of consorting with a married man. No matter how pitiful your effort, it’s more dazzling than hers. On Drummond Island, love and food became inextricably linked in my psyche.
A woman does well to be beautiful, mysterious, haunting, witty, rich, and exotic in bed…but it never hurts to cook good. With characteristic excess I have at times abused this wisdom. There was one irresistible rogue whose heart I pursued with such a surfeit of buttery affection that he fled, prematurely Orsonwellesian. Obviously he was heartless in the first place.
The Kultur Maven, my resident prince, champion, magician, and Grape Nut, imposed a needed discipline. Together we have pursued quality indulgence with wholesome bouts of moderation. Though I feel we do keep our assorted appetites in reasoned perspective, still I notice that we invariably travel on our stomach.
The strength of our commitment to slow death by mayonnaise was exposed in all its sweet folly the long-ago weekend we spent $287 and two nights on plane, train and rickety bus in an innocent’s obsessed pilgrimage to Vienne, France – to the Michelin-star atelier of the late Fernand Point, the Restaurant de la Pyramide. In Blue Trout and Black Truffles Joseph Wechsberg, our model of a peregrinating epicure, had written: “All epicurean roads lead to Vienne.” There must have been some kind of epicurean washout on the road between Rome and Vienne…otherwise we would not have resorted to a costly flight to Nice and the lurching train that insisted with typical French disdain on heading for Lyon only after an impious detour through Marseille.
The Kultur Maven had imposed a 24-hour fast as a gastro-minimal prologue. We read early Saul Bellow and vintage Henry James and tried not to faint from the eau de salami of our neighbors’ picnic lunch as we chugged along our circuitous route, assuring each other our mission was basically esthetic and not mere lunacy, as it seemed. Lyon was paralyzed by a strike. I can’t remember whose. I recall the K.M. lugging a 70-pound semi-trunk behind him. (It had seemed terribly clever to travel to Europe with a single bag.) By the time we found the bus, the Toonerville local, we were beyond caring where it might be headed. We paid three fares…the clever suitcase our equal. At twilight, near faint from hunger, we were deposited in the central plaza of Vienne, where a taxi collected our remains and delivered them to the Residence de la Pyramide. There we napped, did 50 situps and 100 touch-toes, bathed and otherwise prepared for the feast.
I have heard many serious eaters say sadly, “But it has changed, hasn’t it. The Pyramide…Chez Point…is not the same.” Of course it’s not the same. But never having known the glories in Point’s lifetime, I can only record the glories committed in his memory.
The first wave is, incredibly, despair. One is wracked with cruel doubts. Is this it? Is this the home of the world’s most celebrated table…this damp, gray, dowdy little town with its runty pyramid once thought to be Pontius Pilate’s grave? This unpromising gate, this modest brass plaque lettered merely “F. Point”…this bourgeois garden of cliché, the wheelbarrow, the potted plants, the autumn posies…and this tacky dining room with gladioli in each corner and the mongrel furniture so like the tourist-class salon of a third-rate ocean liner? One unwinds and disarms in the unspeakable banality of it all.
Then a molded pyramide of sweet butter is set upon the table, a flatware carrier brimming with silver is delivered to the serving table, and the courtship begins. Before us now, a rich, gamy pâté framed in the tenderest pastry crust. Then a fresh knife, fork and plate transporting an exquisite tender round of truffle-studded foie gras set in a brioche square, exactly the texture and color of the richest challah, the bread of the Jewish Sabbath. Then the ritual change of silver and a third plate with a handsome ratatouille, each vegetable of the fall harvest distinctly its own self, yet happily married.
Now the waiter returns with a truite saumonée farcie braisée au porto, the delicate brook trout poached, skinned, split, and stuffed with a poem of mushroom and vegetable, coated now in a gleaming sauce of butter, cream and port. With this we drink Condrieu, the icy golden vin du pays with its own rare scent and a spirit that simply resists repatriation. (It does not travel – even carrying it to Paris dims its sparkle.) Now to choose…pintadeau poêle aux chanterelles, guinea hen with the plum-scented mushrooms the French call chanterelles, sounded like more than mortal could bear after the creamy voluptuousness of trout. Grilled duck seemed…plainer, somehow, businesslike and practical. The ducks of Nantes are tiny, three pounds to the Long Island duckling’s hefty five. These have been dabbed with a seasoned mustard-butter, dusted with crumbs and…I can’timagine what next.
“It’s French fried duck,” the K.M. mutters, brazenly taking on a full measure of savory béarnaise sauce. Next I vaguely recall a stirring confrontation with the cheese tray – a creamy St. Marcellin and something chalky and cinder-wrapped, classic manna of a goat. Then an offering of ice cream…is it possible we accept? Are not our senses already seduced by the gâteau marjolane, an essay in chocolate, four or five layers of absolutely everything you would want to do with that aphrodisiacal bean? The fruit in its basket is appreciated; no more is possible; but the friandises – the pastry lad’s dainty miniature cream puffs and tartelettes – are somehow decimated. At this point we are giggling, but so is Vincent, the dimpled old maître d’. The waiter too. A few scattered patrons, even the usually stony French, are chuckling and all agrin.
No doubt there was a check and no doubt we paid. I have a béarnaisy blank except that the expense record shows the entry Dinner, Chez Point, $27. I recall a decorous but slightly bubbly exit, then collapse. Angled toward each other for mutual support, we danced down the deserted boulevard named for the departed sorcerer of Vienne…totally, blissfully, wondrously sauced.
Having conquered the world, we went home to make a tiny dent in the epicurean walls of New York. We worshipped with our land’s gastronomic divinity, attending to the catechism of Craig Claiborne in the forming of our floating islands, warming our bowls and yolks and whisks after the teachings of Julia Child, macerating the livers of our chickens in the style of James Beard. The oenophilic competition of our menfolk grew heated…as our cellars grew cooler, the better to store cunning purchases of Château Margaux ’55. Jules, the wine-loving ophthalmologist, put down seven hundred bottles of the ’61 crop in a humidity-controlled cellar. There was talk of a vineyard in Napa valley…somewhere along the Hudson…in the valley of the Loire. Alas, the syndicate sobered up the next day. What I needed was a year’s internship at the Ecole de Cordon Bleu. What I could afford was lessons with Dione Lucas. I majored in dough…learned how to knead pasta, wrap a pâté of duck, veal, pork and truffle in a pastry bunting, mastered Dione’s miraculous chocolate roll and finally…learned to flip an omelette.
We braved the crowd at Veau d’Or and Le Chanteclair…taught ourselves to feel at home in the Four Seasons and endured indignities for the mythic moules glacées Chablis at the Café Chauveron. Now the quintessential Soulé beckoned. But we could not scrape together the courage to face the legendary prime minister of haute hauteur. Henri Soulé, propriétaire and martinet of Le Pavillon. The legend was totally discouraging. I simply could not face walking into the Pavillon, a nobody, untitled, un-Best-Dressed, un-Dun and Bradstreeted. I did not want to be hustled off to the darkest outer reaches of Soulé’s Siberia and be fed old lamb chops. Not that Soulé had invented the snob eating game. But he certainly defined the Olympic rules. Perhaps the way to this man’s heart was through…my typewriter. I proposed to write a story for the Ladies’ Home Journal. “A Week in the Kitchen of the Pavillon.” M. Soulé, a flirtatious five-foot cube of amiability, was willing.
He smiled and pouted and posed, an owl who thinks himself an osprey, and only later did I realize how he grumbled surrendering me to the subterranean kitchen. Soulé was the Pavillon, he felt. The cuisinary masters below were dispensable…but not Soulé: Still he indulged my innocence, inviting me to join him for lunch at three, defying the orders of his doctor to indulge in a zesty brew of tripes à la mode de Caen. And the staff was ordered to suffer my daily presence and teach me how to flute a mushroom, poach a quenelle, whisk and sauce, purée a greenbean.
The Journal story pleased Soulé and he invited us to be his guests at dinner. There was champagne cooling in a bucket when we arrived and caviar and a table in the royal circle. I was still a grubby proletarian when I tried to attract a saleswoman’s attention at Bonwit’s underwear counter, but at Pavillon I felt like Elizabeth at the Coronation. My fascination for the intricacies of fine French feeding grew. I read and browsed and was privy to the gossip of Soulé’s three o’clock luncheon table. Then in May, 1965, Soulé confided that he felt forced to reopen the La Côte Basque to lst piece l965. He had offered the rustic annex to New York originally in 1958 as “Le Pavillon for the poor” and sold it after a ruffle with rebellious waiters. But the new owner had faltered…there was talk of bankruptcy. To recover his unpaid debt, Soulé would have to revive the threatened bistro himself. I documented the drama of the countdown-to-opening in New York when it was still a jewel in the crown of the Sunday Herald Tribune.
Now, Soulé confessed, the Ladies’ Home Journal had been a nothing-little-throwaway exposure. But the Trib…”That means something to Soulé,” he said. We must consider Pavillon our home away from home. I did. Often I would stop by on my ritual Bloomie’s route. Soulé and I would puff cigars together or I would take the delivery entrance to the kitchen to hear the gossip of the trade from chef Grangier, with his hotlines into kitchens all over town. The intrigues of the Food Establishment rivaled the complexities of the Cold War. I was hopelessly fascinated. And as always…hungry.
And that is how I became a restaurant critic.
Here in the mecca of masochists I have devoted myself to New York Table Games…prepared little White Papers on how to be as pampered as Serge Obolensky or Gloria Vanderbilt when your pedigree is no more lofty than Attila the Hun’s.
Perhaps it will seem that I am unduly indulging the neuroses of my peers. But to measure one’s flaws and identify ones ills merely to cure them seems to me hopelessly puritanical. I prefer to isolate my weaknesses the better to indulge them. After a recent 50-minute monologue of my comment and plaint, a psychiatrist told me, “You’re insatiable.” So I discontinued the analysis and invited him to lunch. I am insatiable, but my hunger has never kept me from exulting in pleasure for the moment or hour or day…however long it lasts. One raspberry, one kiss, one emerald…one macaroon will never be enough.
I write for sensualists, not moralists. It is best not to linger fitfully on questions of value. The price of eating well in Manhattan is high, both to psyche and pocket. Is it possible to justify spending $60 to feed two with or without insult à la carte? For the same $60 one could feed breakfast to 120 budding Panthers and be insulted with more contemporary verve. Such ethical considerations seriously undermine good wholesome hedonism. If asparagus and filet of sole cost $62 for two, I want to know only…is it glorious?
For two and a half years I have braved the Siberias and no man’s lands of New York restaurants with a few rare pamperings in the royal circles. I have been fed ambrosia flaming and slops in Bordelaise. I am almost never recognized on those investigatory rounds. Though I would adore being fawned over and am a fool for pampering, anonymity is crucial. How else can I judge what joys or abuses await the average everyday unknown paranoid or hedonist? When I am recognized I find restaurateurs eager to bump congressmen and kings of commerce from choice tables, quick to ply me with unordered tidbits and special advice. In all, quite glorious…but distracting, and I struggle to keep my besieged objectivity in balance. That’s why I wear wigs and hats and sunglasses, make reservations under a guest’s name and always pay the check. Though a few expense accounts have resembled the Port Authority budget, New York has never even whimpered. Each restaurant is visited at least twice, most three or four times, always with a companion, but sometimes with four or five. That way I can taste as many as twenty different dishes in a single mad, marvelous setting. Fits of moderation and the wholesome tyranny of the posture-and-exercise missionary of Pilates, Bob Seed, in his West 56th Street gym, aid my liver and torso in the struggle for survival.
A critic’s life is fraught with peril. A genius cook may take the summer off. The proprietor, a Prussian paragon of discipline, is rushed to the dentist. The saucier’s wife has eloped with the leader of her women’s lib cell. The bass was netted shortly after inhaling a whiff of diesel from a passing vessel. The pâtissier has burned the caramel and hopes no one will notice. Anything can happen. By definition a great restaurant is consistent, but the greatest restaurants of Manhattan have their periodic woes. When I took my friend Ruth, the discerning East Side desperata, to my longtime beloved Café Chauveron, after years of unreserved enthusiasm, we were both staggered by the nonsplendor of our lunch.
Taste is highly subjective. But there are rhythms to my particular passions and eccentricities. My respect for the glories of French cuisine are unsurpassed, but I am a fool for junk food. Large portions fail to depress me. I love chestnuts, macaroons, gnocchi, sweetbreads, crunchy peanut butter and tart, definite seasoning. I adore being fussed over, loathe being condescended to. I want my wine opened promptly, dinner to follow smoothly, enthusiasm and concern from the captain or waiter and advice this side of pressure. My favorite wine is Margaux but I love a fruity $1.79 Moselblumchen, hokey rum drinks, Evian, New York tap water, canned grapefruit and diet cranberry juice (before they took away the cyclamates and left it tasting pruney).
Morels excite me. Fiddlehead ferns delight me. Ditto bacon, lettuce and avocado sandwiches and the French fries at Carrol’s drive-in. I love the snap and calculated spare luxe of the Four Seasons but I don’t mind the sawdust on the floor of a steakhouse or zero ambiance or the Formica-and-vinyl iridescence of a good Chinese restaurant. Cleanliness, I must confess, is the last thing I think about…unless it’s a dirty leaf of lettuce or an unwashed heart of celery. The noise at the Palm doesn’t grate, but close quarters, cramped elbows and waiters who knock into my chair frazzle my nerve endings. Militant waiters at Lundy’s in Brooklyn are charming. The sullen gracelessness at Chock full o’ Nuts infuriates me. A good dinner at a reasonable price is rare and worth reporting – but the delightful intoxication of a sauce sublime truly knocks me out.
I have dedicated myself to the wanton indulgence or my senses. And I shall consider it fitting and divine if on my deathbed my last words echo those of Pierette, the sister of Brillat-Savarin, who died at table shortly before her one hundredth birthday: “Bring on the dessert…I think I’m about to die.”
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